How Digital Media is Used to Fight Stigma

A research essay on the role of digital media in fighting oppression

August 17, 2018

The following essay was written for SAC 376 "Digital Media Theory" at the University of Michigan. The class had students pick a topic related to digital media theory and discuss in several different written formats throughout the course. The final format was a research paper, from which I will share the introduction. If you would like to continue reading, please find the full text attached as a PDF.

Introduction

Stigma is considered to be a non-issue in our modern lives, as if it were something that only affected our ancestors. The reality is quite the opposite, however; though the origin of many stigmas is in the past, their effects manifest readily in the present. Shame and stigma exist in all cultures, our own included, and are particularly obvious in cultures outside of our own: in India (and more broadly, Eastern cultures), for instance, as I’ll discuss later in the paper, women’s hygiene—particularly that relating to menstruation— has life-threatening taboos associated with it. Consider the following two excerpts from New York Times articles about stigmatized women in India and Nepal, respectively.

“A chhaupadi hut by firelight at night. Many women keep using them out of pressure and a sense of obligation.”

“A chhaupadi hut by firelight at night. Many women keep using them out of pressure and a sense of obligation.” Tara Todras-Whitehall, New York Times.

“The taboo of menstruation in India causes real harm. Women in some tribes are forced to live in a cowshed throughout their periods. There are health issues, like infections caused by using dirty rags, and horror stories, like that of one girl who was too embarrassed to ask her mother for a clean cloth, and used one she found without knowing it had lizard eggs in it. According to one of the Yatra outreach workers, the subsequent infection meant her uterus had to be removed when she was 13. She would be forever tainted as a barren woman, so that whoever saw her first in the morning had to take a bath to wash her stain away.”

Forcing women to live in cowsheds, which are often poorly protected from the local elements and wildlife, demonstrates the society’s disregard for those menstruating. Ignoring the risk of complications like those the mentioned girl suffered, living outside leaves one susceptible to mosquitoes, lethal scorpions 1, and even man-eating beasts 2. In addition to the physical danger in which the girl is placed, relegation to the cowshed, away from her family, bears shame in and of itself. Even those who see the girl are ashamed, and feel a need to cleanse themselves, which is a testament to the degree of reproductive stigma in this culture.

“In some villages, menstruating women are sent to cow sheds. Women who just gave birth are also considered polluted, and many remain isolated with their newborns for several days. Two years ago, said Ms. Kunwar, the women’s aid worker, a mother left her newborn alone in a shed for just a few minutes to wash her clothes. A jackal skulked in and snatched the baby.”

In this case, a newborn faced certain death due to the unsafe conditions it and its mother were placed in due to the stigma surrounding menstruation and birth in Nepal. As referenced earlier, man-eating animals impose a real threat to unprotected peoples in certain parts of the world. The disregard for human life is similar here to the first excerpt; by perpetuating the myth that new mothers are pestiferous and therefore must keep outside, the enforcers are endangering the lives of both the infant and its mother.

Stigma requires perpetuation through generations: although these beliefs seem like they could be demystified by science, logic, and knowledge; they in fact are not, while the maintenance of shame strengthens the cycle of stigma. Modern medicine indicates no pollution in new mothers, yet still mothers are sent outdoors where horrors such as those described may happen.

Eliminating, or even reducing, such stigmas would have profound effects for many. The modern effects of taboo are not limited to menstruation, nor to women’s health or hygiene, but these topics carry more prominent stigmas and effects than most issues. Digital media, in various forms, are proven tools to lessen and break stigma and its effects.

Indeed, digital media—including film, web forums, social media—are increasingly being used in different settings and by people of myriad backgrounds to unburden the stigmatized.

Key concepts to address in an attack of stigma are public stigma—“what the public does to people marked with an … illness”—and self-stigma—internalized public stigma—also referred to as external and internal, respectively. There are well-established methods for changing public stigma: protest (appeal to moral authority), education (contradiction of myth by fact), and contact (interaction between the public and the stigmatized) 3. Changing self-stigma is equally important to helping the stigmatized, though these methods are not so generally accepted; for instance, coming out, one of the primary methods for accepting oneself, bears consequences such as worsened discrimination 4.

In this essay, I will argue that digital media are effective tools in combating the negative effects of stigma, external or internal. In doing so, I will present several examples of different digital media being used to counter stigma, shame, and taboo.


  1. India and surrounding regions are home to the world’s deadliest scorpion, Hottentotta tamulus (the Indian red scorpion), among several other highly toxic species. Scorpion stings are not uncommon in these regions, and their true incidence is actually unknown due to underreporting.]
  2. It may seem ridiculous, but leopards and tigers have killed thousands of Indians in the past century. In 2008, tigers migrating from Bangladesh to India attacked and killed a number of people in West Bengal.
  3. Corrigan, Patrick W., and David L. Penn. 1999. “Lessons from Social Psychology on Discrediting Psychiatric Stigma.” American Psychologist 54 (9): 765–76. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.54.9.765.
  4. Corrigan, Patrick W., and B.A. Wassel Abigail. 2008. “Understanding and Influencing the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services 46 (1): 42–48. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5601667_Understanding_and_Influencing_the_Stigma_of_Mental_Illness.